The best-selling author from Berkeley discusses his latest R-rated kids book — F*ck, Now There Are Two of You—as well as the nuances of being a “shitty parent.”
In an age that seems horribly devoid of original ideas, Adam Mansbach had a novel one—to write an obscene children’s book. Yep, kind of crazy on the surface, but makes a lot of sense if you stop to think about it: dive headlong into the day-to-day mania of parenthood by satirizing the white picket fence tone of the kids’ book genre.
So what started out as a joke by Mansbach to some buddies was soon written in one night and—as the saying goes—the rest is hysterical. In 2011, his idea manifested in book form as Go To the F*ck to Sleep, and was soon ranked #1 on the Amazon books list…months before it was even published. Mansbach’s off-the-cuff idea became a cultural phenomenon. Samuel L. Jackson narrated the audiobook and the whole venture went on to sell two million copies.
This month Mansbach releases the next installment in his R-rated kids’ series, F*ck, Now There Are Two of You, which grapples with the overwhelming state of parenthood that occurs when child gets pluralized to children. But don’t pigeonhole Mansbach just yet. As an author, cultural critic and all-around prolific mover and shaker, his body of work also includes the screenplay for the Netflix original Barry, the riotous race riot satire Angry Black White Boy and possibly (but not probably) some kind of future project about Satan babysitting teenage Donald Trump. All this from a “best-selling children’s book author.”
We caught up with Mansbach ahead of his upcoming talk at Kepler’s Books to chat about the pros and cons of catching the zeitgeist, his beef with Raffa and if Barack Obama really uses his own Netflix account. Take a look…
So what was the initial impulse—ten years or so back—to write an explicit children’s book for adults?
The short version is that my daughter was two at the time that I wrote the book and sleeping was not high on her list of priorities. And there’s something frustrating and almost primal about the inability to get a little kid to go to sleep. You know, it’s this thing they have to do in order to live and yet you can’t convince them to do it. I would spend upwards of two hours in some cases, trying to get my daughter to sleep, and a sort of derangement sets in for you and for them. At some point, you would literally do anything to get the kid to sleep. Like if Don Corleone walked in the room and offered to put the baby to sleep in exchange for a favor in the future, you’d be like “Yeah whatever, Don Corleone, just take this fucking baby.”
The book idea coalesced for me when I made a joke to some friends about writing a children’s book called Go The Fuck to Sleep. When I said that, I had no intention of writing that book, but as soon as I said it, I could see what that book would be: the way that it would mash-up the existing conventions of the children’s books that I read my daughter. And about a week after I made that joke, I sat down and wrote it. I thought it was funny, and I read it to some family members…who also thought it was funny. But I was not like, This is gonna conquer the world. I didn’t even think I was going to publish it, I just figured it was for me and shitty parents like me.
But then you caught lightning in a bottle…in a big way…did it blow your mind with how well it did?
Yeah, absolutely. I was incredibly tickled that this ridiculous book was even going to be printed. That in itself far exceeded my expectations. And then things took off from there.
It all began when I gave a public reading of the book at a museum in Philly six months before it was meant to be published. The reaction from the audience was really good and I went home thinking like Hey maybe we got something here. And then because the book’s Amazon page had just gone up, people began to pre-order it and I woke up the next day and apparently everyone at the reading had ordered the book (and told their friends to order the book) because it was now ranked #125 on Amazon. And the book did not yet exist.
So at that point we began to push for an earlier publication date and by the end of that week the book was #1 on Amazon. It was insane … We made it to publication date, Samuel L. Jackson recorded the audiobook and read it on the Letterman show. And then things kept going from there.
I’ve got to wonder what kind of criticism you ran into, because kids books can seem like sacred territory, no?
Oh yeah…totally. We were lucky enough for this thing to hit the zeitgeist, but when that happens everyone has an opinion. People are actively looking for a way to use that thing in the zeitgeist as a way to write their opinion piece and put their two cents in. So there was certainly a lot of that. There was even a little censorship battle in New Zealand of all places. This Christian group called Families First New Zealand tried to get the book banned by saying that while it might be funny in the hands of responsible adults, it can pose a danger to children in the hands of aggressive dysfunctional parents. Sure…similar to a spoon..or a can of beans in the hands of dysfunctional parents.
At one point, I got into it with children’s entertainer Raffi when I was doing an interview in Canada. He was of the the opinion that I was somehow ruining everybody’s childhood because, although he understood that the book wasn’t for children, it was using curse words in conjunction with children, which is, you know, a problem. So I had my beef with Raffi. And basically, my whole takeaway from the situation was—Fuck Raffi.
So your newest book in this series is Fuck, Now There are Two of You…and I’m a parent of three actually…
Oh shit, me too.
…so I can testify to the fact that the 2nd child is like the tipping point moment when you suddenly feel the overwhelming insanity of parenthood….and I’m wondering if you had a specific moment or point after having that second child when it all really hit you?
Well for me, also a father of three, the book is an understatement. My first kid is 11, and then I have a two-and-a-half year-old and an 11-month-old. For me it wasn’t so much the 2nd kid (because my first kid was actually helpful), I wrote the book when my partner was pregnant with the 3rd kid. And I was like, “This is about to be an absolute shit show.” And I was right. The idea that two little kids is not double the kids—it’s like infinity times the kids, turns out to be very true (at least in my house). It was thinking about that conversation that every parent of multiple kids at some point has to sit down with the older kid and say, “Here’s what’s about to happen.” So going back to that idea of the honest version of a conversation, this was like the honest anticipatory version of that conversation with me.
So looking through your bio you’re really prolific and seem to have a lot of interesting projects going at all times, and I’m curious if you ever worry about getting permanently pigeonholed as the Go The F*ck to Sleep guy? Because even now I feel a little dumb just asking you about these books in light of the other projects you have going.
Well, I certainly appreciate that. And it’s always nice when people know me for other things, but no, I think I’m lucky enough to be recognized for anything. I think I would be a jackass if I was out here complaining for being known about the wrong things. And almost every writer I know is struggling to make a living no matter what lane they’re in, so I’m lucky that this thing has hit for me and we continue to sell all these books.
It also provides me a certain kind of margin that allows me to pick the other projects I do, mostly on the grounds of whether I’ll enjoy them or find them interesting challenges instead of worrying about what I have to do to keep my children fed. It’s amazing how succeeding with one project gives you a lift no matter what else you do. So if I write a novel, they can still put New York Times #1 Best Selling Author on the front and that will do what it does.
For me and for people who know me, there is some invisible connective tissue between everything I do. Like Go The Fuck To Sleep was not a calculated attempt to hit the mainstream, it was just me talking the same type of shit that I’ve been talking since I could talk. It’s like the same sensibility that informs the novels I write or the screenplays I write.
One of your other projects was the Netflix original movie Barry [about a young Barack Obama during his junior year at Columbia University in New York City in 1981]. So, did you ever hear from Barack?
We never heard from Barack. We did hear from his sister, who liked it a lot.
My director Vikram [Gandhi] had friends who had dinner with Barack, and he claimed not to have seen it. He said it was too embarrassing to watch it. I don’t know if I believe that. I think he watched it. I mean, he’s got a Netflix deal so I know he definitely has a membership. (Or like the rest of us, he just logs in with his cousin’s membership.) But I would like to think he’s seen it.
The one thing I know he has seen is a political ad I did on his behalf in 2012. Samuel L. Jackson and I did a piece called Wake the Fuck Up. It was [targeting] Obama voters who were very active in 2008 and now were a little less so, the idea was to remind them that it was just as important now as it had been then. So this like 9-year-old white girl is walking around her house trying to convince everyone to get active and they’re blowing her off — and then Sam shows up with a bullhorn and curses everybody out and tells them to “Wake the Fuck Up.” We heard that not only did Obama like that a lot, but he was quoting it and doing a Sam Jackson impression at some events. So I felt good about that.
I wanted to ask you about what other things you have coming up. And I was thinking that your sense of humor mixed with your sense for social observation is well-calibrated to produce something on this Twilight Zone universe that is the Trump Administration. Is that something you’ve considered wading into?
Yes. It’s interesting, Vikram and I (again the director of Barry) extensively discussed what it would look like to do a movie or limited series about a 12-year-old Donald Trump. But Trump sort of defies satire. The political reality of his administration is so terrifying and disgusting that you can’t satirize it.
Our version of this young Trump story, was basically the day that Fred Trump sells his son to the devil. And you realize eventually that this guy that is assigned to mind young Donald is actually Satan and is auditioning him to see if he is sufficiently heartless and venal, so he can accept him and invest in him. It was pretty bugged out and probably unmake-able.
Well you also said that about your children’s book and then you sold two million copies, so I don’t know, maybe you should run with it?
Yeah, I might have to revisit that one.
(Editor’s Note: This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Kepler’s Literary Foundation hosts Parents Night Out With Adam Mansbach and Kate Schatz on Saturday November 2, 7.30–9.30. Full event details below.
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